Rail group seeks support for statewide study

By Carter Pape, The Times-Independent

This article was published in The Times-Independent on May 3, 2019.

A nonprofit passenger rail organization is looking to have the Utah Department of Transportation commission a study of a proposed passenger rail system operated by Amtrak that would run between Salt Lake City, Saint George, Logan, Moab, other Utah cities and Grand Junction, Colorado.

According to Mike Christensen, executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, the study would be a counterpart to a study UDOT is already conducting. The existing study, which has a price tag of $65,000, seeks to determine how much demand there is for rail service in Utah.

Christensen said the additional study could cost roughly $2-3 million and that it would be a “pre-implementation” step to realizing his proposed rail plan for statewide passenger service.

Christensen said that, if implemented, his plan could be in place within the next five years.

Although the plan includes a stop in Moab, that phase would be in place later than the rest of the system, perhaps 10 to 15 years away.

This estimate is based on how long Moab’s Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project will take to complete. UMTRA is currently using the freight rail north of Moab to transport uranium mill tailings from north of town to a permanent disposal site in Crescent Junction.

Until all 16 million tons of contaminated material is removed, the rail will be dedicated to transporting the tailings.

How the rail system would work

Passenger railroads in the United States are primarily operated by Amtrak, which is publicly subsidized. Amtrak operates on freight lines built by private companies, such as Union Pacific and CSX.

Amtrak currently services Salt Lake City and Grand Junction via its California Zephyr route, but according to Christensen, traveling by rail between those two destinations is less than optimal. Each day, one trip goes from Salt Lake to Grand Junction, and it leaves at 3:30 a.m.

Christensen’s proposed plan would bring state-sponsored Amtrak service to Utah, which would mean more train service at better times for travelers and service to more cities.

Currently, Provo, Helper and Green River are the only other cities in Utah on Amtrak’s route from San Francisco to Chicago. Christensen’s plan would bring Amtrak service to Logan, Saint George, Moab and other cities in between, and with more frequent service. Christensen said the service could be as frequent as three times daily.

The plan would require rail to be built from Cedar City to Saint George, where none currently exists. Rail to the other stops on the routes is already laid down and owned by Union Pacific, which owns rail operated by Amtrak in other states, as well.

For more information about the rail plan, visit UtahRPA.org.